Today we are heading West across Michigan, to a thriving city named Best Place to Raise a Family by Forbes Magazine, 1 of 10 best vacation cities for beer lovers, home to five of the world’s leading office furniture companies, 2010′s most sustainable midsize city and Michigan’s second-largest Metropolis, any guesses? That’s right, Grand Rapids. With its picturesque location on the Grand River, growing foodie culture and the Art Prize competition, the city is receiving positive accolades in newspapers and magazines across the country. Once you visit you’ll understand what all the buzz is about.
We begin our visit in East Grand Rapids, an area called Gaslight Village. Once a resort area complete with an amusement park, theatre, pavilion and steamboat rides on Reeds Lake, the land was redeveloped into Gaslight Village after the park closed and fell into disrepair. Today it is a charming little village of boutique shopping, dining, public spaces and places to purchase everyday necessities. We park on Wealthy Street in front of Ramona’s Table, where we will be having lunch. Inside the contemporary interior a corner fireplace heats the room, we order at the counter then have a seat in the sunroom. We have a lovely view of the streetscape, the sky is blue and the sun is shining, the sidewalk is busy with the hustle and bustle of pedestrians. Our food arrives at the table, the Strawberry salad is topped with sweet strawberries, candied walnuts, blue cheese and a homemade strawberry vinaigrette. The Venetian Swing sandwich is layered with ham, brie, greens, tomato and an apricot wasabi dressing served on grilled sourdough bread. They were nice enough to split the sandwich and pasta salad, brie gently oozes from the cut side of the sandwich, I had to take a bite, yum! The team at Ramona’s concentrate on local food and flavors, everything is homemade, and delicious.
We join the foot traffic along Wealthy and pop in and out of shops along the way, by the time we reached Mary Ann’s Chocolates, we figured it was time for dessert. It’s a darling shop with a dazzling gold-colored tin ceiling, candy fills glass cases running the length of the store, from chocolate to candied fruit slices take your pick. Kris and I head straight for the chocolate, one truffle each, they are excellent. Continuing our walk, we check out the Christmas Tree on display in the public space, in the summer people gather to enjoy the fountain, there’s always something going on here.
Back in the Jeep we drive west into downtown Grand Rapids, over to an antique district on Century Ave SW. A huge brick building stands five-stories tall, windows line the facade, a smallish sign near the center of the building says “Antiques”. We begin at the far end, a place called Buckley & Douglas, it doesn’t seem much warmer inside than out, after a few moments I no longer notice as my attention is captured by the vast variety if items on display. Resting on worn shelving vintage blenders and toasters have been re-purposed into whimsical lights….. slick, we meander across the worn wood floor, an old Standard Oil sign, antique typewriter, desks, and tool cabinets fill the room. Some of the pieces are in nice original condition, others have been spruced up or re-worked, some just left in their rusty, patina glory. Remnants of a laboratory are found throughout the area; beakers, petri dishes, glass tubes and microscopes, stuff I don’t usually see. Kris points out the clever use of window panes as a space divider, cool.
The next shop, Lost & Found, is an unexpected surprise, with most of the pieces ranging from the 1950′s through the 70′s, we are right in our element! At first glance it looks as if we have wandered back in time to a furniture showroom, pieces are grouped into room displays complete with lamps, wall hangings and accessories, I can’t even decide what direction to go first there’s so much I want to look at. Taking our time, we explore the extensive collection of pieces; lighting, bar stools, radios, cabinets, dishes and more. I could stay here all day, but there’s more to see…..The next couple of shops in the building are more of what you’d expect from an antique store; depression glass, dishes, figurines, books and magazines, decorative items and small pieces.
The new Downtown Market opened just a few months ago to great fanfare. Built using reused, recycled and re-purposed materials the end result is a gorgeous two-story building filled with artisan foods, there’s even a greenhouse on the roof! We park by what will be the outdoor market in season, inside, the building has an open, airy feel, everything is a neutral color except for the splash of lime green accents. Lighting is easy on the eyes, there’s sort of a Zen feel to the place, vendors are grouped into neat spaces sans walls, it smells good in here. We begin by strolling past fresh produce, a fish market, and meats. Field & Fire Bakery has samples of whole grain bread for shoppers to taste, chocolate, a taco stand, juice bar and fresh pasta all are worthy of our consideration, but it is the Sweetie-licious Bake Shop that stops us in our tracks. Think Betty Crocker doused in pink….Vintage recipe books, aprons, rolling pins and doilies decorate the counters, did I mention the Easy-Bake Oven? Pie is the specialty here, but the oversize cookies and cupcakes appear equally delicious. It is snack time, the decision of what kind of pie to get was tough, Pumpkin Cheesecake won. What is pie without ice cream? Kris is heading over to Love’s Ice Cream for a scoop while I grab a couple of coffee’s from Simpatico Coffee, we meet at a table on the second floor. From here we overlook the entire market as we indulge in gourmet goodness from the local vendors.
We are staying downtown at the City Flats Hotel on Monroe Center, the building, formerly the legendary Fox Jewelers Building, has been transformed into a 5-story, 28 room boutique hotel. What makes it unique is its LEED Gold Certification; the furniture and decor was all designed and manufactured with local materials and rapidly renewable resources. The majority of all finished products were manufactured in Holland MI. We like the hotel for its great decor, rooms are super quiet, the bedding is the most comfortable of anyplace we have stayed, they have a full service restaurant and bar on the first floor, and it’s centrally located downtown. Once we have checked in and relaxed for a bit we hit the street in search of dinner. It didn’t take long to find what we were looking for, XO Asian Cuisine drew us right in. It is a weekend, the restaurant is busy, we are seated quickly and given thick menus, the food on surrounding tables looks wonderful. Kris chooses a specialty sushi of the house, I go with Pad Thai, we will share both dishes. The sushi is fantastic, edible flowers decorate the plate, the noodle dish has a unique seasoning here and is quite tasty, when we can eat no more we surrender our chopsticks.
Walking along Monroe Center St we follow the glow of the blue LED lights to the public skating rink, it is jammed with skaters. A long line forms of folks waiting to take the ice, skilled skaters show their stuff in the center of the ice as the less experienced hang onto the side railing. The snow-covered grass glows under the blue and white lights. The scene is beautiful, festive; trees throughout downtown are smothered in lights, horse pulled carriages clippity-clop over the brick streets, winter in Michigan.
Back at our hotel, we stop at the bar for a night-cap and chat with the bartender, we talk about all the exciting changes taking place in the city. Time to get some sleep, we have so much more to do tomorrow.